Updated: Nov 11
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The Musical
David Greig, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Neal Street Productions, Playful Productions, Hunter Arnold & Gavin Kalin Productions
Liverpool Empire, November 8-26; 2 hrs 30 mins
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is visually delicious, of course; a sumptuous feast of colour, costume, and set, including some beautiful projections and some very fancy special effects.
But for much of this, you have to make it past the interval. It’s a show of two halves, with Charlie’s family, and the quest to find the golden ticket in Act 1, and the Wonka chocolate factory tour in Act 2. One highlight of the first act is the family dynamic, and the beautiful BSL performed throughout by Mrs Bucket (Leonie Spilsbury). But there’s a lot of people and a lot of story to cram in, and it can feel structurally slow in the first half, but with the paradox of character introductions that are rushed.
However, in Act 2 you can almost taste the chocolate river and the candy cane trees. If we look back to the 1971 movie, we can see a Willy Wonka almost unchanged, perhaps a little more frantic and theatrical here – with the great showmanship of Gareth Snook – but still in the same top hat and chocolatey-purple smoking jacket as the late Gene Wilder, emanating charisma, luxury and more than a touch of neurotic narcissism. The ambiguity of the character has a great appeal to children – the candyman who can – but beware, or you might meet a sticky end!
And it’s not just Wonka’s health and safety protocols that come from another age. The children themselves are examples of moral deficiency: greed, pride, gluttony and sloth; with Charlie as the beacon of light, purity and goodness despite (or perhaps because of) a background of poverty. It’s simple, but show me a child who doesn’t like a gruesome moral tale with a triumphant righteous underdog! And the gift of this story is that the consequences are handed back to the young audience. Having chewed the under-developed contraband gum, does greedy Violet (Marisha Morgan) pop like an over-inflated blueberry? Or does she emerge, penitent, from the juicy wreckage? We never know. The audience members will decide, each according to their own dramatic inclination. But the suggestive special effects are hilarious.
The preoccupation with Violet’s chewing might seem old-fashioned in an age where we know gum can be beneficial for dental health; Veruca’s punishment for being spoiled by her father seems harsh; and the Germanic cultural stereotype of Augustus is slightly jarring – though it does give rise to a song with some rather excellent yodelling by Robin Samoes Da Silva and Kate Milner Evans as Frau Gloop.
Mike Teavee (Teddy Hind) is perhaps the most problematic character, and speaks to the 1960s concern that watching too much TV might create lazy, disengaged, or violent, aggressive children. How the world has changed, and I wonder if an update might be pressing for the TikTok generation.
In introducing (and then dispatching) a lot of characters quickly, there are a lot of words and much dramatic responsibility given to the new songs, and it is a great shame that many of the words in the fast-paced passages were inaudible on this particular evening. One key song we all knew from the movie, Pure Imagination, didn't quite deliver, which was a pity, as catchy melodies are relatively thin on the ground in this reimagined version.
But certain updates work well. The array of Charlies displayed in the programme are male and female in equal measure. In Harmony Raine Riley, my 10-year-old daughter exclaimed that surely we must have had the very best Charlie Bucket! Indeed Riley did herself and the rest of the cast proud, and it was a pleasure to see such unshakable professionalism in a youngster.
The Oompa-Loompas keep their familiar movie song, but are updated for the modern age. They are no longer of diminutive stature, but rather an army of steam-punk minions with masks and an array of metallic robot-like costumes. I liked it. My children were divided, and one of them quite overwhelmed by the ensemble songs and faceless choreography of judgment upon the unfortunate children. I guess that’s the risk the creators are taking, but it's surely better than the 1970s alternative.
Sadly, overall, the songs don’t measure up to the visual, and at two and a half hours, young attention spans can wane. Maybe, for today’s audience, we need more quality contemporary songs. Or maybe these kids just watch too much TV.
But the show is beautiful, extravagant, plush and it sure takes a good photo. The underscoring and orchestration puts us in mind of the auditory Hollywood opulence of yesteryear. There were some fab performances and some great ideas, particularly for set and ensemble. The best is saved for last with Charlie and Wonka, in his great glass elevator, soaring above the projected orange clouds, and on wires above the stage, a culmination of song and spectacle.
It's a fantasy of chocolate and story-telling, and if nothing else, a bedazzling display of many a sweet childhood dream.